The last journey:Cash crunch forced Pehlu Khan to buy cows. The decision cost him his life
It was on the afternoon of March 31, 2017 that Pehlu Khan told his family that he wanted to buy a couple of buffaloes more and expand his dairy farm, his wife Jaibuna recalls.
Khan,55, was the father of eight children – four boys and four girls. The family lived in Jaisinghpura village in Haryana’s Muslim-dominated Nuh district where most people are either farmers or work in nearby factories.
Khan began his career as a driver, but he was the only son and his mother Ankuri Begum worried that they may lose him in a road accident. The family decided they would make a living trading cattle and selling milk.
Khan wanted to buy more buffaloes in the hope of earning an extra profit and buy new clothes for Ramzan, which was a little more than a month away.
“I remember he told me not to worry about how we would make it through Ramzan. He said that selling buffalo milk to the local suppliers would fetch us enough money,” Khan’s widow, Jaibuna, 51, said. “The plan was to buy two buffaloes and not cows. Selling a litre of buffalo milk here fetches around Rs 50. For cow’s milk, it is Rs 30.”
Khan’s trip to buy the buffalos was to change their lives, but not in the way they thought. Hindustan Times pieced together this account of the fateful trip, which was to end in his death at the hands of a mob and Jaibuna’s widowhood, from conversations with the family and others on the heels of a court verdict that acquitted six people.
Khan chose the cattle market he frequented the most – the Hathwada road market in Jaipur, Rajasthan, a 233 km ride from Jaisinghpura. Khan told his children he had booked a pick-up van from a man in Nuh. He would leave on Friday evening, spend the night at the fair and return with the buffaloes the following day.
But at sunrise, the van didn’t arrive and Khan was unable to contact the driver. With time running out, Khan knocked at the door of his neighbour, Khan Mohammad, to borrow his vehicle -- a Tata light truck.
But Mohammed did not have a driver. That meant Khan’s eldest son Irshad, 28, who knew how to drive, would have to be at the steering wheel. Khan’s son Aarif, 21, also decided to join the trip.
“We paid Rs 4,500 for the pick-up van and left around 4pm,” Irshad said.
Once they left the dusty lanes of Nuh behind, Khan and his sons stepped on the gas down the Delhi-Jaipur National Highway, stopping only for a meal late in the evening in Shahpura, a hamlet roughly 60km from Jaipur.
“I remember our last meal together. We had dal and rotis. Papa did not eat much... [he] discussed money and his plans to celebrate Ramzan. Bhai [brother] told him not to worry,” Aarif said.
They reached Jaipur at around 10pm – with plenty of time for the fair that would begin at daybreak the next day. The three men found a spot in the field where thousands like them were squatting for the night, waiting for the fair to kick off.
Aarif remembers they spent Rs 120 to hire two cots for the night. “Papa said two cots would be enough for the three of us. There was no point in spending more. We had brought bed sheets from home. We joined the cots and slept,” he added.
The field was bustling with streams of incoming visitors, and Aarif was uneasy. It was his first visit to the market although his father and brother had been there earlier. The trains of animals and people kept disturbing his sleep. Little did he know it was his last night with his father.
The cattle fair
The Saturday cattle fair on the Hathwada road in Jaipur is among the biggest in Rajasthan. Organised by the city municipal corporation, the fair attracts traders and farmers from small villages in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, and Delhi, and milks the stellar reputation of Rajasthan’s bovine breeds. About 3,500 cows and buffaloes are brought to the fair every Saturday.
“Rajasthan cattle are considered the best. A buffalo or a cow is sold for anywhere between R25,000 to R1 lakh here. It is a day-long fair. Some people even buy and sell cattle within hours at the fair if they get a good deal,” said Kulwant Singh, who is in charge of collecting taxes from the cattle trade. More than 10,000 cattle traders come to the fair every Saturday, Singh said.
Khan and his sons woke up at 7am on April 1, 2017. Over the next six hours, they negotiated with at least 50 buffalo sellers, but had no luck. The Khans were looking for two buffaloes and two calves, but couldn’t find a single trader who would sell them the animals in their budget.
“The buffaloes were expensive. We could not find a cheaper buffalo,” said Aarif.
All traders were asking between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000 for a buffalo. Khan wanted two animals but was carrying less than Rs 50,000. But returning empty-handed was not an option– they had already spent Rs 4,500 on the van and had made plans for a gala Ramzan celebration. With the sun blazing overhead, Khan decided it was time to drop the idea of buying buffaloes and look for cows.
“I wish I had stopped him then,” Aarif said.
The family didn’t have to struggle to find willing cow traders. The animals were cheaper and a man from Rajasthan sold them two cows and two calves for Rs 45,000.
Proud at having struck a good bargain, and with still some cash to spare, Khan asked the Rajasthan seller for proof of the cows’ capacity to give milk. The seller brought a bucket and milked the two cows, giving the Khans the pail with 12 litres of milk in it. The three men drank two litres between themselves, and sold the rest in the fair. “I remember papa’s smile on tasting the milk,” Irshad recalled.
At the fair, every buyer has to pay an outgoing tax of Rs 100, known locally as Ravaani, for each cow. For a buffalo, it is Rs 200 a head. The Ravaani is a yellow piece of paper with the stamp of the Jaipur municipal corporation that certifies the sale of the animal. The slip contains details of the buyer, seller, and the transaction.
The Khans herded their cows and collected their Ravaani. Irshad got into the driver’s seat and Aarif climbed in beside him. “Papa said he would sit with the cows and their calves because they needed to be looked after. He placed a polythene on the floor of the van to prevent the cow’s droppings or urine from falling on the road. He stacked enough hay for the cows,” Irshad said.
At around 4pm on April 1, they drove out of the fair, but were immediately stopped by a team of policemen, on the vigil to stop any illegal smuggling of cows for slaughtering. Like in a number of Indian states, cow slaughter is banned in Rajasthan.
“We showed police the Ravaani. We told them that the cows and their newborn would be used for our dairy business. The police checked our papers and let us go,” Aarif said.
Over the next few kilometers, they encountered 10 such checkpoints, and the same routine was repeated at each one. The boys were thinking of home – Jaibuna had prepared dinner for them and cleared some area outside the house for the cattle. Evening was falling and the family relaxed as they drove.
The mob attack
At around 6.30pm on April 1, around 111km from their home, near Rajasthan’s Behror town, Irshad noticed three or four bike-riding men flagging him down, riding next to their pick-up van. Aarif said they stopped immediately.
“Irshad was the first one to be dragged out. My father was next. We showed the papers of our purchase but they tore them. They said we were Muslims and were taking the cows for slaughtering,” he added.
Local residents in Behror dispute this. They say the Khans drove past a gathering of people, who were waiting for the police after having caught some “cattle smugglers”, and did not stop when signalled to do so. “This is why locals chased him on the highway and forced him to stop,” said a shopkeeper at Behror’s Jagwas Chowk, asking not to be named. In the charge sheet, police went by Irshad’s statement.
By 7pm, the three men had been dragged out of their van by the locals and thrown on the ground, being kicked and punched. “All I remember is getting punched and hit with sticks. A mob had gathered. People shot videos. Papa was bleeding. It seemed like hell,” said Aarif.
Midway into the beating, Aarif remembered seeing the mob stopping another pick-up van. He recognised two men from that van – Ajmat and Rafiq from his village who had also bought cows from the cattle.
“We did not know that Ajmat and Rafiq too were at the fair. Their driver was a Hindu. He shouted and said he was a Hindu. He showed the mob some religious threads tied on his hand and asked them to leave him. The mob allowed him to flee. But for us, the beatings continued,” he added.
The police arrived an hour later and caught some men from the spot. “The five of us were huddled into an ambulance and sent to the local hospital,” Irshad said.
By the time news spread of the mob attack and Khan started making national headlines, he was fighting for his life at the Intensive Care Unit of Kailash Hospital in Behror. That night, he briefly regained consciousness and named six men for the assault – names him and his son had heard during the attack. He died two days later.
The subsequent investigation of Khan’s death became one of the most high-profile probes in the country, but was beset by numerous lapses and discrepancies, which finally resulted in six people accused of killing him getting acquitted. The men who were cleared of all charges had been identified from videos of the attack; the men Khan had named had been cleared a year ago, on the basis of call records and witnesses who said they were at a faraway cowshed.
Since that day, two years have passed but an image is burned into Irshad’s mind. “All I remember of my father now is him joining hands and praying to the mob to spare his life. He was bleeding on the road but he was reassuring us that the police would come and rescue us,” Irshad said.
The family has a small tombstone with Khan’s name inscribed on it in their backyard. “I wish he had stuck to his original plan to buy buffaloes. He would be alive today,” Jaibuna said.
The place where the Khans were attacked is unrecognisable today. Next to the pavement where the three were pinned to the ground, a real estate group is building bungalows and villas, with the tagline “committed for a better tomorrow”.
The security guard who works at the construction site is unaware of the location’s link to notoriety. On the other side of the highway, a food court opened last year and most people who stop for a snack don’t know about Khan.
A local resident who works at a construction site said Khan was a cow smuggler and innocent men were arrested in the case.
Less than a kilometre away from the spot is Dehmi Gaushala, where police deposited Khan’s two cows and calves. At the gaushala, a worker said one of the persons acquitted in the case visited the cowshed after the August 14 verdict and fed the animals as a gesture of thanksgiving.
Among the cattle was a three-year-old calf – one of two snatched away from Khan that fateful evening of April 1, 2017.
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